Tuesday, March 25, 2008

On Elder-Friendly Design

I was talking with a friend this week, who had spent some time serving in an inner-city church. Once the largest, most vibrant church in the community, changing demographics had left them with a large property that a committed but increasingly smaller group of elder church members struggled to maintain. I knew it, I even knew some of them (my great-uncle was a long-time member) and sympathized. But I didn't really understand.

What I learned as he shared his experiences was how hurt these dear people felt at their near total marginalization by the modern (American) church. Their experience, their wisdom, wasn't wanted. Their preferences, for music or service style meant nothing. Everyone wanted the twenties and thirties. Noone wanted them. They had a siege mentality, huddling together against the forces of rejection in the place that, of all places, they should have been most welcome. All the happening churches in town would rather have a 25 year old with a guitar and a smile than someone that had served and loved and grown in grace for half a century.

I was always uncomfortable with the trendy, self-consciously hip approaches prevalent in 'emerging' churches. But now I'm just plain angry.

I checked the websites of the supposedly 'innovative' churches below. On only one could I find any reference to a ministry for older adults. Though their sites are heavy with pictures (some obviously stock photos of models, patently not real parishioners), few depicted anyone older than 50. When they did, it was often a minister. Funny that the ministers will soon be too old to attend their own church. I wonder where they'll go then? These churches made special spaces for kids, and youth, and young adults, and a coffeeshop so their fashionable attendees can get through a service without being deprived of their precious java. But no special place, no welcoming provision, for their seniors.

How do you welcome the elders to your church?

Disability requirements for new construction probably mean the basics for accessible loos and walkways are in place. But is the light in the auditorium kept too low for dim eyes to read the Scripture passage? (elders usually still bring their own Bibles. Old-fashioned, that) Are there ushers available to help a slow-moving elder through a sea of young people to the front door and then to their seat? Have you considered how daunting a long hallway, a vast vestibule, is to an elder? Is there hearing-impaired provision, even special seating for elders in the sanctuary? Do you pursue elders as members as much as you do young professionals? Do you seek to integrate your older adults into the life of the church, involve them with the children, honor them by valuing what they value?

What would a space to comfort and delight and minister to senior adults look like?

I don't have the answer. But I know that Jesus didn't have a target demographic, and "they don't like our music" is a total cop-out. Shame on you 'innovative' churches.


Andy in Germany said...

Hello, I've just found this blog, and I really like it... I've long thought that churches need to think a bit more about how their design affects worship.

I found this entry very interesting though. It describes the exact opposite of what we experience here. Anything new, anything that is for anyone under 50 is treated with deep suspicion. "They don't like our music" is used by older people to excuse the lack of young people- and it took nearly a year to get one vaguely modern service a month, and there are still (Older) people fighting it.

All that to say: I think what we are seeing is a reaction. An immature reaction, to be sure, but understandable. A generation was told to sit still, shut up, and do nothing to rock the boat. So they left and started a new church where they had a bit of freedom. They figured the older people wouldn't come anyway, so they set up services and churches as they wanted them. And in the manner of younger people, didn't think of disabled loos (although come to think of it, our church loo is across a courtyard, and it's a younger person who has seen this and is trying to change it- me.)

I agree with you, this ain't a good thing, which is why I'm working in a more traditional church, and trying to encourage younger people by words and example to stay, but it isn't hard when a lot of the time they get whining and grumps from the very people who should be mentoring and encouraging them. We have a modern service now, and anyone can help with the planning, but lo and behold it's mostly young people. Almost no familiy persons, and a couple of older folk (including the pastor) come to help plan or run it. So the young people try and accomodate the other groups as best they can, but they don't know how, and no-one will come and tell them.

I know the answer to this is prayer and a lot of love to heal the wounds (on both sides). However, you reproduce what you are: Unfortunately we can't expect young people to reach out to older people (although many do) until they see it demonstrated by their elders.

And I haven't even started on the Pews...

Andy in Germany said...

Second comment because I forgot to subscribe to responses.

BTW I agree with the thought that Jesus didn't have a target demographic- I keep telling people here that. And yes, many of the 'Innovative churches aim for young professionals- it's easier than the older people (Or for that matter urban youth, homeless, single mums...)

churchgirl said...

Arcady said, "I was always uncomfortable with the trendy, self-consciously hip approaches prevalent in 'emerging' churches. But now I'm just plain angry."

Churchgirl says, "Your photos and designs represent those of a urban, modern, hip, upcoming, young generation. Who are you to judge innovative churches. You are the typical hypocrite."

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